What Brits say – and what they mean

    Spotlight 11/2021
    happy and sad faces
    © Georg Lechner
    Von Vanessa Clark

    The stereotype is that English people are impeccablyunfehlbar, perfektimpeccably polite. That’s not always true, of course. We Brits can be as rudeunhöflich, grobrude as any other nation on earth. However, I believe we do have a special skill – the ability to be rude and polite at the same time – especially in the workplace. 

    Maybe we aren’t brave enough to be outwardlyäußerlich, nach außen hinoutwardly negative, so we hide unpleasant truths behind politeness. For non-native speakers, who are often more direct when it comes to voicing negative opinions, this can be hard to spotentdeckenspot. So, be careful! What German speakers hear is not necessarily what their British conversation partner means.

    Have a look at our light-heartedfröhlich, heiterlight-hearted (and only slightly exaggeratedübertriebenexaggerated) guide to fwhat Brits say versusim Gegensatz zuversus what they mean. Read the first sentence, think about the literalbuchstäblich, wörtlichliteral meaning of what is being said and then try to spot the hidden statement behind it. But be warned: if you read any further, you may not trust an English speaker ever again!

    Phrase to go

    The phrase “a gentle reminderErinnerungreminder” is a classic example of passive-aggressive language. More neutral options are “a quick reminder” or just “a reminder”. 


    What they say: I hear what you say.

    What you hear: I’ve listened to you carefully
    and I accept your point of view.

    What they mean: I don’t agree, but I don’t want to trigger an argument.


    What they say: With all due respect,…

    What you hear: I really respect you.

    What they mean: The amount of respect I have for you is almost zero.


    What they say: That’s one possibility.

    What you hear: Great, that’s a possible way forward.

    What they mean: That’s one possibility, but there are lots of better ones.


    What they say: Thank you for your useful contribution to the discussion.

    What you hear: Your comments were really helpful.

    What they mean: Oh, good – you’ve finally stopped talking. 


    What they say: Well, you’ve certainly given us food for thought.

    What you hear: You’ve really challenged us. Thank you.

    What they mean: I’m not actually going to address any of the points you’ve made here and now, so I’ll pretend that I’m going to think about them later.


    What they say: I think you’re nearly there. 

    What you hear: It’s as good as finished.

    What they mean: You still have a hell of a lot to do.


    What they say: It’s a bit disappointing that…

    What you hear: It wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, but almost.

    What they mean: I can’t believe you’ve done this so badly.


    What they say: Just a gentle reminder to all colleagues not to leave cups in the sinkSpülbeckensink.

    What you hear: Please remember to put your cups in the dishwasher.

    What they mean: How many times do I have to remind you all? Use the dishwasher!


    What they say: I would suggest that we…

    What you hear: This is one possible way forward, but I’m open to discussion.

    What they mean: This is what is going to happen.


    What they say: Oh, by the way, just one more thing,…

    What you hear: I’ve just thought of something that’s not terribly important.

    What they mean: This is really important, but I was afraid to address the topic earlier.


    What they say: I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said.

    What you hear: I agree with everything you’ve said.

    What they mean: I don’t understand anything you’ve said. You’re talking nonsense.


    What they say: That is a boldgewagt, kühnbold idea.

    What you hear: Wow, you’re so creative! This is the best idea I’ve ever heard.

    What they mean: You’re crazy. This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.


    What they say: Let’s not worry about that now.

    What you hear: We’ll think about it later.

    What they mean: Shut up!Halt den Mund!Shut up!


    What they say: I’ll bear it in mind.

    What you hear: I’ll certainly take your suggestion to take sth. into accountetw. in Betracht zieheninto account.

    What they mean: I’ve forgotten it already.


    What they say: Could we consider a few other options?

    What you hear: I am open to suggestions.

    What they mean: I don’t like any of the suggestions you’ve made so far, but luckily, I have my own idea, which is a lot better.


    What they say: Perhaps I didn’t explain clearly enough the first time. I’ll try again.

    What you hear: I’m sorry I didn’t explain it
    clearly. I’ll try to do better.

    What they mean: I clearly didn’t explain it well enough for an idiot like you. Let’s try again with words of one syllableSilbesyllable, as if you’re five years old.


    What they say: I have one or two small comments on your document.

    What you hear: I’ve spotted a couple of typoTippfehlertypos

    What they mean: Please rewrite this completely.


    What they say: I’m excited to see the attachmentAnhangattachment.

    What you hear: I really like the attachment you’ve sent me.

    What they mean: I can’t believe you didn’t send the attachment in the first placevon vornhereinin the first place! Where is it?


    What they say: Oh, dear! I think that’s probably my fault.

    What you hear: I made a mistake and I’m sorry.

    What they mean: It’s clearly your fault.


    What they say: That’s not a bad idea.

    What you hear: That’s quite a good idea.

    What they mean: That’s not a terrible idea, but I have a better one.


    That’s absolutely brilliant! You’re a genius!

    Info to go

    A problem with politely neutral comments is that they can be confused with British ironic understatement. “That’s not a bad idea” can be high praiseLobpraise! It all depends on the tone of voice.

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